‘The First Mrs. Rothschild’: a book review

By Debbi K. Levy

Very few things fill me with contentedness the way writing does. The private journaling for myself to process my thoughts, or even the public writing practice I share with you here, of bringing to light words strung together that may be somehow enriching to our Jewish lives. I was magnetized by author Sara Aharoni’s novel, not just because my beloved’s last name is Rothschild, but because it is Gutelah Rothschild’s diaries that serve as the foundation of this poignant and potent narrative.

“Father, who had just finished counting his daily income of coins and placed them in the heavy wooden box, suddenly asked, his smile warm, ‘Would you like that notebook?’ I nodded and clutched it to my chest. That night I whispered to it, making sure not to wake up my younger siblings, sleeping in our room crowded with beds and soft breathing, ‘I choose you as my best friend. I’ll tell you everything.’ I placed it carefully under the mattress and from that day on have occasionally pulled it out late at night, sitting down on the floor the way I am right now and unfolding my day onto its pages. Since I am in charge of making the beds in our room, I have no fear of my secret being revealed.”

The reader first fastens their seatbelt, to travel through time and arrive in Frankfurt, Germany, in the year 1770, in the ghetto of Judengasse, to be precise. This ghetto was initially conceived by Frederick III in the 1400s and said to be “merely a separation of the Jews” and yet, the geography that contained 300 Jews at that time was not ever enlarged, Gutelah explains in her diary. It is her young husband, Meir Rothschild, who imparts this fact to her as he makes Gutelah his partner in a sacredly crafted plan to crawl out of the ghetto and bring honor to his family and community. Meir Rothschild, we learn, is sustained by faith and adoration of the Creator, and feels the power of what is bashert (destined).

“We shall multiply our family, as well as our wealth. Our power will be in our money. A poor man is as good as dead, but money carries dignity, and I plan on earning us plenty of dignity.”

The reader continues journeying with the Rothschilds until 1849. Ghetto life with its stench and overcrowdedness may make you feel nauseous as you look upon your own expansive space here in Dallas, Texas. But I am certain that you, reader, have a pretty good notion that Meir Rothschild with his legendary last name does not, in fact, live out his life in the ghetto. I certainly don’t want to offer a spoiler alert here, yet I do wish to convey that the historical account left for posterity by Gutelah tracks and records the heartwrenching details of the Jewish lives of the generations, in tandem with joy that will bring you to a silent “Thank You!” to the Almighty.

One detail of public record worth noting is that most people do not realize that Meir’s surname was not Rothschild. To be clear, Jews were stripped of their last names during that time period in order to being further disrespect to, and foster humiliation for, the Jews. Moreover, the very first Rothschild was Isaak Elchanan Rothschild, who died in 1585. Rothschild, when translated, means “red sign” and is symbolic of their red sign that hung upon the gates of the family home, later used and adopted by the family as their recognizable surname. Indeed, when Naftaly Hertz, Isaak Elchanan’s grandson, found himself in financial distress and was forced to move to a Hinterpfann (literal translation: house at the back of the saucepan) at the northern edge, he took the red house sign with him, and ever since then, the family had been living there, having adopted “red sign” as their family name.

Comprising 481 pages, “The First Mrs. Rothschild” is not a summer beach read, but a sincere account by a Jewish matriarch about stepping into the light with all the gifts with which one is endowed by the Creator. The Steimatzky Prize–winning novel by Israeli-born Sara Aharoni (copyright 2019) has given me a valuable Jewish education that I shall treasure and keep close to my heart.

Debbi K. Levy is busy sharing more deeply in her journal writings these days, inspired by Gutelah Rothschild, so that her great-great-grandchildren may know her.

Leave a Reply